We put Uncle Ron’s assertion to the test.

“Superhero movies are ruining film.” You’ve probably heard that from relatives, or maybe your less dorky friends. But is it true?

Let’s ignore the fact that the democratization of film, through affordable equipment, production and distribution methods (like easily copied mp4 files and plain old YouTube) enable us to answer our own complaints — if you think a particular kind of film isn’t being made, you can just make it yourself. And even if you’re not that ambitious, you can use those methods to stream, download and popularize through social media someone else’s wonderful work, whether they live down the street or on the other side of the world.

What your uncles and film school friends are really talking about is that stodgy, cautious monolith called Hollywood. The clandestine profit factory that’s found out it’s a lot easier (and more reliable) to work off an already existing idea than it is to create something new. It’s hard to argue that creativity in Hollywood isn’t declining, but does that necessarily mean the films themselves aren’t good? Let’s go to the numbers!

Superhero movies are popular. More popular than the hammy action movies they more or less replaced, and I doubt many people would insist that Winter Soldier is just as bad as Rambo IV. The question then becomes, “Are these things pushing better stuff from the top of the box office, dumbing down American cinema?” As always, the twin tools of Rotten Tomatoes and Box Office Mojo can inform.

One easy thing to do is to compare the highest-grossing “superhero” movies of a given year to the highest-grossing “regular” movies. We’ll look at the top three from each side, starting in 2008 (the beginning of the Marvel Cinematic Universe) and work up from there. Note that 2009 and 2010 only have two entries — the innocent days before cape ubiquity!

Superhero movie
Dark Knight (2008)
Iron Man (2008)
Hancock (2008)
Origins Wolverine (2009)
Watchmen (2009)
Iron Man 2 (2010)
Kick-Ass (2010)
Thor (2011)
CA: First Avenger (2011)
XM: First Class (2011)
Avengers (2012)
Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Amazing SM (2012)
Iron Man 3 (2013)
Man of Steel (2013)
Thor: Dark World (2013)
CA: Winter Soldier (2014)
GotG (2014)
Amazing SM 2 (2014)
Age of Ultron (2015)
Ant-Man (2015)
Fantastic Four (2015)
CA: Civil War (2016)
Batman V Superman (2016)
Suicide Squad (2016)
Wonder Woman (2017)
GotG (2017)
SM: Homecoming (2017)

RT %
94
94
41
38
64
73
75
77
80
86
92
87
73
80
55
66
89
91
52
75
82
9
91
27
26
92
83
92

“Regular” movie
IJ: Crystal Skull (2008)
Wall-E (2008)
Kung Fu Panda (2008)
Avatar (2009)
TF: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)
Toy Story 3 (2010)
Alice in Wonderland (2010)
HP: Deathly Hollows 2 (2011)
TF: Dark of the Moon (2011)
Twilight: Breaking Dawn 1 (2011)
Hunger Games (2012)
Skyfall (2012)
Hobbit (2012)
HG: Catching Fire (2013)
Frozen (2013)
Despicable Me 2 (2013)
American Sniper (2014)
HG: Mockingjay 1(2014)
Lego Movie (2014)
SW: Force Awakens (2015)
Jurassic World (2015)
Inside Out (2015)
SW: Rogue One (2016)
Finding Dory (2016)
Secret Life of Pets (2016)
SW: Last Jedi (2017)
Beauty and the Beast (2017)
Jumanji (2017)

RT %
77
96
87
83
19
99
52
78
35
25
84
92
64
89
89
74
72
66
96
93
71
98
85
94
74
91
71
76

Average Superhero: 70%
Average “Regular:” 75 %

So the answer to the question, “Are superhero movies pushing better stuff down the box office charts?” is, “Yeah, sort of.” Five percentage points is not a lot, and check out all those “regular” movies — they’re mostly genre pictures themselves. What if we compare the Rotten Tomatoes scores of superhero movies from 2008 on to those of the highest grossing “regular” movies going all the way back to 1980 (the first year RT has records on)? Is there an overall decline since those halcyon times of Karate Kid and Weekend at Bernie’s?

I’ll spare you the giant table on this one, and just say that the average Rotten Tomatoes score of the top three highest grossing films every year from 1980 on is 77%. Yes, higher than our superhero average and even higher than the “regular” average over the last 10 years.

But not by much! A quick appraisal of the data does seem to confirm what the most crotchety among us have been saying, but it’s by such a small margin that it might be more accurate to say that nothing’s really changed, overall. The numbers might flip slightly the other way if using different parameters (e.g. a different cut-off year for “superhero” movies, using more than just the top three, etc.).

And of course we know that all superhero movies are not created equal. Marvel doesn’t really have any bombs, compared to the general malaise of the DC Extended Universe and Fox’s once-in-a-lifetime disaster of the most recent Fantastic Four movie (at a mind-numbing RT score of 9%).

If you average out the Rotten Tomatoes scores of all the modern superhero movies by studio, you get:

DCEU (from Man of Steel on)
Fox (X-Men plus all three Fantastic Four)
Sony (all Spider-Man films)
MCU (from Iron Man on)

48%
70%
74%
83%

It’s clear someone’s bringing down the average. And someone else is wrecking the curve.

This data begs the follow-up question: To help raise the level of American cinema, should Marvel Studios just make every movie???

The Critical Angle is a recurring feature that uses critical thinking and skepticism to analyze pop culture phenomena. Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. Rather than repeating the same old assertions, we put them to the test.